>Iconic Images of Individualism

Posted: 12/08/2010 in American Civic Religion, Christian living, church, communalism, individualism

>Internetmonk.com has a had a few blogs on individualism lately. There are particurlarly angry words against individualistic autonomy which is rightly contrasted with extremely communal living of some Christian traditions.

As Americans, individualism is the water that we swim in. We might not actually know what it is. If we do know what it is, we are used to praising it. I myself, am a incurable individualist at times. I do not think that individualism is bad per se, but it certainly affects Christianity in the United States. Pictures, however, are worth a thousand words. Here are some images I dug up when googling “Worship.”

Notice a pattern? The images are always of the lone person communing with the God up on high. That individual worships God all by himself, with no one around. Such an emphasis on the individualistic Christian worship is so strong that it was lampooned at Saddleback church

I didn’t stop there. If you have ever been through a Bible bookstore you have also seen images of individualism. Like these:

Like the images of worship, these book covers privilege a spirituality that is “me and God.” It is a belief in sola ego with sola scriptura. The Osteen book even has it in the title: …a better you. Again, individualism shows itself better through images than words can express.

There is also another way to notice individualism in our churches and worship. Listen closely to words used in worship songs. Do they emphasis the singular pronouns (I/me) or the plural pronouns (We/us)? The former emphasizes individualism. For sake of contrast here are the lyrics from two songs. First an old hymn:

A mighty fortress is our God.
A bulwark never failing.
Our helper he a mid the flood,
of mortal ills prevailing.
-A Mighty Fortress

here is a more contemporary song:

And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles’ wings
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise
I will rise
-I will Rise by Chris Tomlin

Notice the pronouns I highlighted. The contemporary song uses individualistic language (“I will rise”), while the older hymn uses communal language (“our God”). Also, try reading both of the lyrics as if they were sentences in your second grade English class. If your teacher said “please underline the subject of this sentence,” what would you underline in each of those songs?

Now again, I am not saying that individualism is bad per se, but it does affect American Christianity. This is something we need to be aware of, and evaluate our practices accordingly.

So what do “you” think? 😉

  1. Dan says:

    >Well, the short of it is that I think you're right. I focus more on how contemporary songs are, in my personal feelings on the issue. Unfortunately, there are examples of old hymns that also represent the singular "I was blind but now I see," and "I'm standing on the promises…" as a few examples. I see those differently, but I figure they need to be brought up. I still agree with your sentiment. The United States Church is turning into an Army of One…me! Very unfortunate.

  2. Jaret says:

    >Well since you called me out, I suppose I should comment ;)You already know what I think about the individualistic nature of American Christianity in general and Evangelicalism in particular. And I think you're spot on. The question remains, what do you think?I didn't get any sense of your views throughout the article except that you say that it "certainly affects Christianity in the United States." I could also see some passive negativity towards it through the examples you bring up but mostly you draw attention just to its existence. But I wanna know how you feel about it. That is what a blog is all about, no? Go ahead, have an opinion 🙂

  3. Jin-roh says:

    >Jaret, the blog roll is also about getting people talking. I only recently learning the fine art of biting my tongue.I feel best in more strongly communal churches, but I frequently torn between several needs. The churches I feel most communal are also (sadly) populated by people much older than me. This is not a bad thing itself, but I do need to be around people my age.Of course, people my age tend to all be card carrying evangelicals.Its a tough mix.

  4. Dan says:

    >Not all evangelicals are bad…right?

  5. Jin-roh says:

    >Of course not. I am just not a Evangelical anymore.

  6. Bad Grad says:

    >I wonder sometimes if the heavily individualistic nature of worship creates more people like me (I left the church and am not a believer now). There is something about that demand for a personal choice, a personal relationship with God, the somewhat aggressive question "But do you believe? that starkly forces you in or out at a very young age. Some would say this is as it should be, but part of the joy of a community is that it includes you and carries you along even if you just aren't feeling it and haven't felt it for a long time. Sometimes going through the motions is all you can do, and an individualistic worship culture that demands a constant connection to God and the accompanying emotional highs can only lead to frustration unless you're a total fake.

  7. Jaret says:

    >It is not only the evangelical churches who have undergone individualization. The US Catholic Church is coming out with a new missal (Structure of the mass). The changes are just superficial for the most part to a more literal translation from the Latin, but the Nicene Creed translation is pertinent to this conversation.Old:WE believe in one God,the Father, the Almighty,maker of heaven and earth…New:I believe in one God,the Father almighty,maker of heaven and earth…There are some translation changes I like, such as removing gendered pronouns from the part about the Holy Spirit. But changing "we" to "I" throughout the creed isn't something I would have done. I enjoy saying this in unison with everyone else confessing the same faith. But it's ok, not like they're changing any of the doctrine.Overall I think this Individualism trend can be dangerous, especially when this is coupled with theology. In my opinion, it leads to fire and brimstone preaching against individual sins, while ignoring the damage caused by structural and corporate sin. This kind of thinking has given us such theological gems as the "prosperity gospel" and its converse, what I would call a "poverty gospel." This attitude can be summed up as the poor are poor because they must be too weak to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and their broken lives will be mended as soon as they find their way to a personal relationship with Jesus. This attitude also what leads to the false perception that racism is just an individual problem instead of a systemic injustice, but now I'm starting to rantBoth individualism and communality are important, but obviously I tend to value one more than the other. I just feel more spiritually fulfilled in community than individually.

  8. >I had really hoped to prove you wrong by google image searching the word "prayer" but all of those were individuals too. Damn, and I thought it might just be semantics!

  9. Jaret says:

    >I just heard this song on the radio the other day, kinda made me cringe a bit inside and made me think of this blog.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKTW-srvr6EThe whole idea of Religion vs Relationship (false dichotomy IMO) is tied to individualism in Christianity

  10. Jonathan says:

    >Funny thing is that the "worship leader" in the Saddleback lampoon video is a good friend of Anna's and mine, and yet this is the first time I've seen this video. 🙂

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